The spring season will be started in Belgium this weekend with the semi-classics Het Volk and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne events on Saturday and Sunday respectively. For T-Mobile's leading cobblestone specialist Andreas Klier, it’s a first real form test in the heartland of the big spring challenges to come: Tour of Flanders (April 8) and Paris-Roubaix (April 15).
"These races are an important indicator of what kind of shape the riders are in, and what they need to work on to get into absolute peak condition," said T-Mobile sports director Allan Peiper, who expects to see his riders "riding at the front, where they can control the race tempo".
Klier will be joined by the experienced Dutchman Servais Knaven and the Austrian newcomer Bernhard Eisel, who took out the team's first season win at the recent Volta ao Algarve. "These three could make all the difference on Saturday," added Peiper, who will send his riders into Het Volk without a designated leader, preferring instead to keep the team's options open.
Classics specialists Markus Burghardt and Roger Hammond will also test their legs on Saturday at Het Volk, while all-rounders Lorenzo Bernucci and Bert Grabsch and sprinter Eric Baumann round out the eight-man roster. Six of Saturday's eight starters are back on the saddle Sunday for Kuurne- Brussel-Kuurne, with just the New Zealander Greg Henderson and the Czech Frantisek Rabon slotting in to replace Knaven and Eisel.
Het Volk is the first HC-ranked race of the year and takes the peloton on a 202km route through the damp fields and stiff climbs of Flanders. One day later, the peloton takes on a gruelling 193km loop from Kuurne to Brussels and back.
A dose of the Belgian winter can make these among the hardest races of the season. Hoffman rated Het Volk as particularly tough: "The demanding 'Muur' and 'Oude Kwaremont' climbs also feature in the Tour of Flanders and they are sure to shake things up in the field," said the Dutchman, who also expected a real battle of attrition on the numerous cobbled passages along the route.
The Belgians will be the ones to beat in their own backyard, and riders like Tom Boonen (Quick Step), Leif Hoste (Predictor), Stijn Devolder (Discovery Channel), Nick Nuyens (Cofidis/Kuurne) and Philippe Gilbert (Fdjeux/Het Volk) are seen as favourites.
T-Mobile will line up the following riders:
Het Volk: Eric Baumann (26/Germany), Lorenzo Bernucci (27/Italy), Markus Burghardt (23/Germany), Bernhard Eisel (26/Austria), Bert Grabsch (31/Germany), Roger Hammond (33/Great Britain), Andreas Klier (31/Germany), Servais Knaven (35/Netherlands).
Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne: Eric Baumann (26/Germany), Lorenzo Bernucci (27/Italy), Markus Burghardt (23/Germany), Bert Grabsch (31/Germany), Roger Hammond (33/Great Britain), Greg Henderson (30/New Zealand), Andreas Klier (31), Frantisek Rabon (23/Czech R.).
Italian-German team Milram is also sending a contingent to Belgium for the weekend. Team director Gianluigi Stanga selected the following riders: Alessandro Cortinovis, Fabio Sabatini, Carlo Scognamiglio, Ralf Grabsch, Marcel Sieberg, Martin Müller, Sebastian Siedler and Niki Terpstra.
Team Wiesenhof-Felt is looking to Classics specialist Steffen Wesemann in the two Belgian races this weekend. Wesemann finished second in Het Volk last year and hopes to repeat his success.
"Since our team is built around the Belgian races, we will show ourselves and surely not hide," said directeur sportif Ronny Lauke. Wesemann said, "In this kind of race you have to focus directly on the best riders and ride with them from the beginning. That way we could get a top ten finish. And maybe it will be even more than that."
The German Professional Continental Team will be sending the same line-up to both races, namely: Steffen Wesemann, Bas Giling, Robert Wagner, Stefan Van Dijk, Andre Schulze, Torsten Schmidt, Olaf Pollack and Jörg Ludewig.